The Do’s and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation in Marketing - Champ Internet Solutions
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The Do’s and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation in Marketing

by Isabella DeChard

Any business or business owner understands that marketing is primarily about your relationship with consumers than the actual business plan. A solid marketing strategy aims to build relationships with every consumer – keeping them up to date with trends, pop culture, media, and other current events.

Cultural diversity is meant to be an environment that brings people together to recognize the different cultures and backgrounds each of us comes from.

Companies across the globe are implementing best practices to acknowledge the validity of different cultures and backgrounds in their workplace. The overall intent is to encourage and celebrate the contributions and differences of diverse cultures within our community.

However, when it comes to marketing, this cultural diversity can be confused between appreciation and appropriation.

Learn how to identify cultural appropriation in society and the best practices to avoid compromising minority cultures in your marketing.

Identifying Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Appreciation

As we see in many forms of branding and marketing, the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation is often blurred and misrepresented.

The Oxford Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as:

“The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

Furthermore, the definition of cultural appreciation refers to:

“When someone seeks to understand and learn more about another culture, in an effort to broaden perspective and connect with others cross-culturally.” 

Understanding the difference between appropriation and appreciation will help your business to rightfully navigate and represent this form of marketing in an inclusive manner.

A Tangled History 

Believe it or not, this cultural appropriation has been happening long before any digital marketing techniques or branding strategies were put into place.

On a larger scale, cultural appropriation has impacted our society and country for centuries. Some of the earliest examples of this form of cultural stealing and appropriation began right here in the United States, specifically with colonization.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, our Founding Fathers arrived in North America and stole land from the Native Americans. At the time, this land was used to build wealth and expand resources, which resulted in pushing the Native community into a financial disadvantage. They continued to disregard the Native culture and the care they had for the land, benefitting and monetizing it into an entire economy of wealth for a new society.

To this day, Native reservation land is still held “in trust” by the federal government. As a result, there are now 2 million Native Americans in the U.S. experiencing the highest rate of poverty of any racial group.

More specifically, the Native American culture is the only group being used in branded sports teams and as mascots. It’s a branding tradition that has been used for decades, with little to no recognition or acknowledgement to Native American culture. However, we are seeing some shifts – sports teams and organizations are opening up the conversation and taking ownership in their appropriation, some shifting towards a rebrand. Plus, 45% of fans are pushing sports teams to do more than just stop using culturally insensitive names and mascots.

This history is a prime example of how stealing from other communities and cultures can be harmful and detrimental to marginalized groups.

How is Cultural Appropriation Harmful in Marketing? 

The double standard created by cultural appropriation is harmful to communities and society as a whole. For centuries, marginalized groups have systematically been set up to experience economic and societal disadvantages. This is often triggered by societal stereotypes and stigmatizations formed against these groups.

Imagine a brand hand-selecting a specific culture or marginalized group to commercialize into their branding, and benefitting and profiting off of it as a result; (Particularly when that marginalized group has been historically and systemically stripped of the opportunity to make that same profit).

Intent vs. Impact: Does Your Brand Know the Difference? 

Implementing specific cultural references and trends in a marketing strategy can be a slippery slope for businesses. Mistakes or misunderstandings are bound to happen to us all. Regardless of intentions, what we say and do can impact people in so many ways, even when we’re unaware of the social implications.

As a company, consider these points on intent vs. impact for cultural diversity and representation.

  • Remember that you can’t control how someone reacts to your response. Although intentions may be good, it does not mean a favorable response should be expected.
  • Establish a company mission or brand value that commits to never appropriating cultures in advertising or marketing assets. Instead, provide resources and information about specific cultures and backgrounds you represent in your workplace.
  • Actions speak louder than words. If there has been a miscommunication or cross within a marketing campaign – recognize the wrong, sincerely apologize, and act. Try to understand what was said that hurt or impacted a marginalized group, then find a way your brand can honor or support within the community and to better their perspective.

Overall, while the intent for cultural representation in marketing is often in good light – does the intent of our actions truly matter when those actions have a harmful effect that further marginalizes those around us?

Marketers Missing the Mark 

Mainstream media has become a large influence of cultural appropriation – simultaneously working to call out companies with these microaggressions and decreasingly isolating communities in the process. Additionally, you’ll often find brands blindly appropriating cultural elements through multiple media outlets.

In the height of the 2017 Black Lives Matter movement, society was experiencing both sorrow over the country’s racial injustice and an urgency to fight for human rights. Peaceful and empowering protests and rallies were organized across the country all with the intent to advocate for racial equality. Severe political backlash, police brutality, and in some unfortunate cases, death or violence, resulted in these protests.

So when Pepsi came out with a commercial in this same year with the intent to hopefully spark positive change and “join the conversation,” they drastically missed the mark.

The commercial starts off with celebrity model Kendall Jenner doing a photoshoot on a busy city road. She notices a group protesting and dramatically stops the photoshoot and shovels through the crowd to join the march.

The camera shows her passing by the crowd of protestors and fist bumping a Black man in cornrows before making her way to the start of the crowd and in front of a line of police officers. She hands the officer a can of Pepsi, to which he kindly smiles as a “thank you.”

Image courtesy of 

Considering the social and political climate of that time, Pepsi’s message in the commercial comes off as tone deaf and culturally insensitive.

Without amplifying or highlighting the unjust reality and unfortunate truth of these Black Lives Matter protests, this commercial reflects a glamorized rendition of a marketing tactic and poses no sensibility of these protestors actually going face to face with authorities.

How to Prevent Cultural Appropriation in Your Marketing

When done correctly, every aspect of your marketing should represent your brand’s message. Remember to be mindful of this brand message in every step of the marketing strategy – from logo design, company name, brand values, and even your website and product packaging. It’s important to check in and assess if any of these aspects are hurting a specific community or culture in the process.

Check out these four simple ways to avoid cultural appropriation in your marketing:

1. Understanding Ownership

When it comes to using a specific cultural element in a design, it’s imperative to respect the rights that cultural groups have in determining what is and is not acceptable or appropriate.

It is not encouraged to use any symbols or language directly derived from specific cultures inappropriately and without credit. However, you can represent a desired cultural element if you appropriately communicate the significance and history behind the elements your brand chooses.

2. Everyone Needs a Seat at the Table 

When creating an ad campaign, graphic, article, or any type of creative asset, be mindful of including a diversity of voices and perspectives. You are more likely to come off as tone-deaf or one sided when choosing to alienate entire segments of your audience.

Bring diverse perspectives and people into the brainstorming session and conversations being had with your brand. Create content with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) creators, expand the diversity of your voices in the sales process, and so on. This way, you are on the appropriate side of cultural appreciation, and not appropriation.

3. Stay Engaged & Educated 

There is always an opportunity for each of us to learn. Educate yourself on experiences of other cultures and languages and listen and learn to what they have to say. 

Many companies and organizations have come forward with ownership of their marketing mishap and have pivoted their branding to be more inclusive and supportive to cultures.

For instance, fashion company Dior received backlash over their Sauvage perfume ad campaign. The ad campaign sparked debate, suggesting that the Native dress and dance detailed in the campaign are appropriating Native culture.

Not only did Dior pull the campaign completely, they reorganized to work with a Native American-focused group, Americans for Indian Opportunity, for its marketing strategy. Dior worked with the AIO organization and its team of Native actors, writers, artists, and staff to educate the production team and support allyship.

By staying educated in the process of incorporating cultural history into their representations, companies like Dior were able to return agency to minority communities and give support.

Image courtesy of Luxury Daily

4. Do Your Part

Overall, amplifying voices and establishing your intentions for avoiding cultural appropriation in marketing is an exceptionally positive step in the right direction. However, the ultimate sign of meaningful cultural allyship is truly doing your part. Don’t just be all talk, walk the walk! 

Ask yourself and your company what more can be done to further provide support to cultural diversity. Organize team learning, make cultural investments, and continually give back to specific communities.

Remember that these efforts aren’t necessarily a transaction in exchange for the rights to take ownership of specific cultural details, but rather appropriately acknowledge your support.

Promoting the Learning of Diversity & Inclusion of Cultures in Marketing 

No matter your business’s product, service, or brand, you have the privilege and opportunity to shape the minds of our consumers and society at large.

Looking at it through a marketing perspective, cultural appropriation by brands creates a double standard of mimicking cultural experiences or practices from marginalized communities in an effort for financial gain – when these communities themselves do not always hold that same privilege.

You can’t take the fashion, music, stories or language of one culture for marketing tactics and leave behind the racism, generational trauma, and unfortunate truth that follows.

At Champ, our digital marketing team is dedicated to strategizing efforts and actions that not only appropriately echo cultural identities, but support and advocate for this diversity in the process.

Read more about marketing best practices in our Blog, and contact us today to learn more about our digital marketing services.